Who will pay for cleanup? Legal battle brewing over Lac-Megantic spill

QUEBEC CITY – Forty-seven lives lost, a city devastated, rivers polluted with hundreds of thousands of litres of crude oil. Quebec wants Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), World Fuel Services and Western Petroleum Company to pay. Law experts agree the province has the legal tools to force their hand, thanks to a little known but very important article in the environment protection act.

“The minister has the possibility not only to sue the transporter, the one who has the custody or control of the oil, but also the owner of the oil because it is a contaminant, because it was a dangerous product,” explained Laval University Law Professor Daniel Gardner.

In a legal order sent this week, the Environment Minister gives the companies seven days to come up with a decontamination plan. But MMA CEO Ed Burkhardt told CBC Radio he doubts his insurance will be able to cover the costs, even hinting his company may soon go bust.

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“The issue about whether we’re going to declare bankruptcy is something that we haven’t decided,” he said. “We have this under study. It’s a very complex issue and it certainly involves the insurance coverage as part of it.”

The Environment Minister isn’t satisfied with that answer. Yves-François Blanchet said the last thing he wants is companies trying to get out of their responsibilities. So far, no one has come forward saying they will abide by the terms of the order, meaning Blanchet could eventually push for criminal sanctions.

“If they don’t comply, there are actually criminal sanctions that can be laid against the company, faced with contempt of court for failing to fulfill the order,” said McGill Associate Law Professor Richard Janda.

All those proceedings will take years, added Janda, at least a decade.

Until a solution is found, Quebec taxpayers are left footing the bill for the cleanup…a bill law experts predict could soon total a billion dollars.

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